September 23, 2018

Comparative Jesus Timelines

Here is an early draft (sans footnotes) of a potential Ph.D project, which I post as a time capsule, in case I never get to pursue this any further. What follows is over 4,000 words, including tables and statistics, the upshot of which is as follows.

Academic Jesus chronology has never been pursued with systematic rigor; rather than a few scholars defending their own pet timelines, we should itemize the few dozen timelines which are mathematically possible and then work backwards to reduce our uncertainty by a process of elimination. Although judgments about elimination will vary, the final stage is to construct multiple chronological scenarios, with each timeline contextualized by its own parameters, so that future progress can observe potential hypotheses comparatively, as historians should do.

If I die too soon, someone please take up this project. If you want me to get to this sooner, please find me a wealthy sponsor. If you see something I missed, please send me an e-mail. Thank you, everyone!

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Comparative Jesus Timelines

Expanding Possibilities and Contextualizing Scenarios

When Gospel scholars attempt to reconstruct the history of Jesus’ public activities, their primary challenge is to assess ways in which the relevant data might be applied to three major elements of chronology: (1) the year of Jesus’ public debut, (2) the length-in-years of Jesus’ duration in ministry, and (3) the year of Jesus’ crucifixion. For convenience, henceforth, these three variables may be called JDebut, JDuration, and JDeath. Together, these three chronological variables provide a basic framework for engaging the history of debate on this subject, in which there has been little to no long term consensus, because the Gospels’ temporal references are notoriously flexible enough to support a range of interpretations. However, it can be helpful to analyze this flexibility by isolating our three major variables, each in turn, as follows.

On JDebut, Luke 3:23 (“about thirty years of age”) is too broad to be helpful, John 2:20 (“46 years” of Herod’s Temple) is unclear because Josephus is vague about when Temple construction began, and Luke 3:1 (“the fifteenth year of Tiberius”) has two problems. First, by different methods of reckoning, this “fifteenth year” has been placed anywhere from 26 to 29 CE. Second, and more importantly, it does not refer to Jesus’ public debut but to John the Baptist’s. This has been largely ignored since Nikos Kokkinos first pointed it out, but Bas van Os has recently emphasized the irrefutable point that there is no justification for the common assumption that Jesus’ debut followed one year or so after John’s. Thus, JDebut cannot be dated directly by isolating this data. By itself, it provides only a range of possibilities.

On JDuration, most scholars have been extremely reticent to accept relevant data at all. The most common observation is that three referenced Passovers in the Fourth Gospel would imply two years of time passing, and possibly more. In the minority, Harold Hoehner finds a fourth Passover explicitly referenced by REFERENCE (the grain plucking incident) and amateur Johnston Cheney stretches a bit to make REFERENCE (the temple tax collection) into a fifth Passover, but these opinions also are mathematically indeterminate. Even if Hoehner and Cheney are both correct, that wouldn’t restrict Jesus’ ministry to a span of no more than five Passovers, just as both of them being incorrect wouldn’t require a shorter time span. However, accepting that JDebut and JDeath both happen while Pontius Pilate is over Judea (from mid-26 to mid-36 CE) does restrict JDuration to nine Passovers at most. Once again, the isolated examination of data relevant to JDuration can provide only a range of possibilites, by itself.

On JDeath, most New Testament scholars used to rely on astronomy as the decisive factor, but Roger Beckwith’s critique of relying on astronomy has gained increasing attention. Because the Jewish calendar date Nissan 14 was subject to visual observation of the new moon at its rising, a modern retrojection cannot guarantee the official watchman wasn’t off by one day, which means there’s a chance Nissan 14 didn’t fall quite when it should have. More recently, Helen Bond’s reexamination of the relevant data (which was thought to suggest that Jesus died on the day of Passover), and her appeal to memory theory in reassessing the nature of that data, has demonstrated convincingly that astronomy is no longer helpful on this issue at all. Leaning particularly on Jack Finegan, Bond correctly concludes: “all that the evidence allows us to claim is that Jesus died some time around the Passover, perhaps a few days before the feast, any time between 29 and 34 CE.” Like the other two major components of Jesus’ timeline, isolated efforts to date JDeath can produce only a range of possibilities.

Of all this, Bond’s recent work is the most significant factor, which demands reassessing this overall challenge. In one way, losing the astronomical angle on Jesus’ death is unfortunate, because it means that a mostly hermeneutical endeavor has lost its one historiographical anchor to the measurable reality of the (imaginably) actual past. On the other hand, it is quite fortunate that Bond’s argument has conclusively obsoleted the old battle between 30 or 33 CE, which exerted a famously procrustean influence on dating Jesus’ public debut and his ministry’s duration. Discarding that old restriction affords a fresh look at the data from a more holistic perspective. Rather than working out individual conclusions on all three major components and then engaging in a “cut and paste” form of positivism, a fresh approach to this problem can explore plausible scenarios, which is more properly historiographical. By mapping out all discussed variations on JDebut, JDuration, and JDeath against a listing of the ten Passovers during Pontius Pilate’s Judean prefecture, it is easy to generate a comprehensive set of permutations; in the broadest formulation, this renders forty-five possible timelines, which may serve as a valuable baseline to examine, and then hopefully to revise.

Baseline Tabulation: Forty-Five Options


Count
Description
27 CE
28 CE
29 CE
30 CE
31 CE
32 CE
33 CE
34 CE
35 CE
36 CE
1
10 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
P8
P9
PF
2
9 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
P8
PF

3
8 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
PF


4
7 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
PF



5
6 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF




6
5 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
P4
PF





7
4 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
P3
PF






8
3 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
P2
PF







9
2 Passovers, starting in 27
P1
PF








10
9 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
P8
PF
11
8 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
PF

12
7 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
PF


13
6 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF



14
5 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
P4
PF




15
4 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
P3
PF





16
3 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
P2
PF






17
2 Passovers, starting in 28

P1
PF







18
8 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
P7
PF
19
7 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
PF

20
6 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF


21
5 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
P3
P4
PF



22
4 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
P3
PF




23
3 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
P2
PF





24
2 Passovers, starting in 29


P1
PF






25
7 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
PF
26
6 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF

27
5 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
P2
P3
P4
PF


28
4 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
P2
P3
PF



29
3 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
P2
PF




30
2 Passovers, starting in 30



P1
PF





31
6 Passovers, starting in 31




P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF
32
5 Passovers, starting in 31




P1
P2
P3
P4
PF

33
4 Passovers, starting in 31




P1
P2
P3
PF


34
3 Passovers, starting in 31




P1
P2
PF



35
2 Passovers, starting in 31




P1
PF




36
5 Passovers, starting in 32





P1
P2
P3
P4
PF
37
4 Passovers, starting in 32





P1
P2
P3
PF

38
3 Passovers, starting in 32





P1
P2
PF


39
2 Passovers, starting in 32





P1
PF



40
4 Passovers, starting in 33






P1
P2
P3
PF
41
3 Passovers, starting in 33






P1
P2
PF

42
2 Passovers, starting in 33






P1
PF


43
3 Passovers, starting in 34







P1
P2
PF
44
2 Passovers, starting in 34







P1
PF

45
2 Passovers, starting in 35








P1
PF

27 CE
28 CE
29 CE
30 CE
31 CE
32 CE
33 CE
34 CE
35 CE
36 CE
Probability of JDeath
(in each given year)
0%
1 / 45

2%
2 / 45

4%
3 / 45

7%
4 / 45

9%
5 / 45

11%
6 / 45

13%
7 / 45

16%
8 / 45

18%
9 /  45

20%
Probability of JDebut
(in each given year)
9 / 45

20%
8 / 45

18%
7 / 45

16%
6 / 45

13%
5 / 45

11%
4 / 45

9%
3 / 45

7%
2 / 45

4%
1 / 45

2%
0%
Probability of JDuration
1 / 45 10 P’s (2%); 2/45 9 P’s (4%); 3/45 8 P’s (7%); 4/45 7 P’s (9%); 5/45 6 P’s (11%); 6/45 5 P’s (13 %); 7/45 4 P’s (16%); 8/45 3 P’s (18%); 9/45 2 P’s (20%)



Essentially, this table leverages our three major constraints against one another. (Note: “P1” = “Passover #1” = the Passover represented by John 2:13-25; “PF” = “Final Passover” = the week of Jesus’ Passion; and JDuration = the number of years between PF and P1; that is, JDuration = one less than the total number of Passovers, so a ministry with five passovers would be four years long, and so on.) The first ten rows illustrate all the possibilities if JDebut (“P1”) goes in 27 CE, and within these ten rows the possibilities of JDeath (“PF”) and JDuration (“PF-1”) sort themselves out mathematically. The next nine rows start in 28, and the next eight in 29, and so forth. Collectively, this illustrates all the mathematically possible “shapes” for the overall timeline, which means that one of those 45 options is absolutely correct. The “right answer” is finally written down (whichever one that might be!) and this alone is cause enough to motivate further inquiry. Also worth noting is that options for Jesus’ public debut are not exclusively set one year after John’s public debut. In all but the first nine rows (or the first 17; see below), the length of John’s ministry cannot be directly inferred. What is listed here are the exhaustive possibilities; e.g., in rows 25-30 Jesus debuts in 30 CE, but John could have started in 29 and lasted one year, or started in 28 and lasted two years, and so on.

Probabilities calculated beneath the table don’t mean much at this stage, but it may become interesting to compare changes in these percentages which may come after tightening various constraints. In this baseline tabulation, JDeath is most frequently 36 and JDebut is most frequently 27, but supposing both of those options requires a nine year JDuration, which is least likely statistically and also least likely historically. Perhaps this suggests it would be wise to avoid either extreme, which will naturally occur if these constraints are revised, or perhaps not. Mathematically, of course, these ratios are merely a statistical way of describing the overall table, but - more pertinently to the business at hand - there are some interesting ways to look at this data in aggregate. For instance, only 10 of the 45 permutations (22%) put Jesus’ trial before the death of Sejanus (Oct, 31 CE), whereas the other 35 options (78%) would add some complexity to Pilate’s political situation, because the continuing fallout from Sejanus’ death lasted until Tiberius’ death (37 CE). To clarify, the fact that this applies to 78% of all possible historical reconstructions is statistically true, and absolutely regardless of whether or not such complexity might be reflected in the Gospel portrayals of Pilate as a character. Obviously, a simple balance of probabilities is no determination of fact, although it can be intriguing, and potentially suggestive.

Altogether, this initial tabulation illustrates why historical sequences must be given a “shape”. A different set of historical questions arises naturally from constructing specific timelines, as opposed to questions about the referential meaning of isolated textual snippets. Both are important, but one is far more substantial. As a result, this table offers a number of specific scenarios which nobody has yet proposed, including some which most scholars will probably consider absurd, such as the nine year long JDuration (Timeline #1) and the nine different timelines with a one year long JDuration. Removing these extreme reconstructions, at least tentatively, can both shrink the list of possible timelines and also revitalize key aspects of the traditional debate. Moving forward, which constraints most deserve to be tightened, if any?

How could individual scholarly decisions reduce this baseline data differently? Here is one promising example. Following Finegan, Bond wisely disallows JDeath in 36 or 35 CE because of Pauline Chronology, and disallows JDebut in 27 CE by rejecting the most contrived arguments about Luke 3:1. Accepting these parameters eliminates 24 of the 45 timelines, leaving only 21.


Tabulation from Bond/Finegan: Twenty-One Options


Count
Description
28 CE
29 CE
30 CE
31 CE
32 CE
33 CE
34 CE
1
7 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
P6
PF
2
6 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF

3
5 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
P2
P3
P4
PF


4
4 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
P2
P3
PF



5
3 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
P2
PF




6
2 Passovers, starting in 28
P1
PF





7
6 Passovers, starting in 29

P1
P2
P3
P4
P5
PF
8
5 Passovers, starting in 29

P1
P2
P3
P4
PF

9
4 Passovers, starting in 29

P1
P2
P3
PF


10
3 Passovers, starting in 29

P1
P2
PF



11
2 Passovers, starting in 29

P1
PF




12
5 Passovers, starting in 30


P1
P2
P3
P4
PF
13
4 Passovers, starting in 30


P1
P2
P3
PF

14
3 Passovers, starting in 30


P1
P2
PF


15
2 Passovers, starting in 30


P1
PF



16
4 Passovers, starting in 31



P1
P2
P3
PF
17
3 Passovers, starting in 31



P1
P2
PF

18
2 Passovers, starting in 31



P1
PF


19
3 Passovers, starting in 32




P1
P2
PF
20
2 Passovers, starting in 32




P1
PF

21
2 Passovers, starting in 33





P1
PF

28 CE
29 CE
30 CE
31 CE
32 CE
33 CE
34 CE
Probability of Cross
(in each given year)
0%
1 / 21

5%
2 / 21

10%
3 / 21

14%
4 / 21

19%
5 / 21

24%
6 / 21

29%
Probability of Commencement
(in each given year)
6 / 21

29%
5 / 21

24%
4 / 21

19%
3 / 21

14%
2 / 21

10%
1 / 21

5%
0%
Probability of Duration
1/21 7 P’s (5%); 2/21 6 P’s (10%); 3/21 5 P’s (14 %); 4/21 4 P’s (19%); 5/21 3 P’s (24%); 6/21 2 P’s (29%)




This second tabulation is a comprehensive visual unfolding of Bond’s 2013 conclusion that “Jesus died some time around Passover (perhaps a week or so before the feast) between 29 and 34 CE.” Extrapolating what was previously implicit renders 21 possible scenarios and increases constraint without unduly favoring any particular timeline. Once more, the aggregation of frequencies at bottom illustrates trends in the data without suggesting an outright solution; as before, the most likely Death is at the far right and the most likely Debut is at the far left, so that accepting them both once again requires accepting the least likely duration. Likewise, the odds of Jesus dying after Sejanus are nearly the same; in 29% of these timelines he didn’t; in the other 71% he did. Some basic parameters of the larger question remain unchanged but the overall problem has greatly improved. There are obviously some ways to narrow this down a bit further, but will anyone agree on the best means of doing so?

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine three scholars who all accept Bond/Finegan’s 21 options as their collective baseline but suppose each scholar has different ideas about how to proceed. Scholar A takes a stricter view of Luke 3:1, which eliminates 28 CE for JDebut. Scholar B accepts all three Passovers in GJohn and finds one additional harvest season during Jesus’ Galilean phase, prior to John the Baptist’s beheading, which eliminates one year or two years for JDuration. Scholar C applies Bowersock more stringently against Pauline chronology, which eliminates 34 CE for JDeath. Further, suppose none of these three scholars agrees with the others. Without any consensus on how to proceed, the next logical step for these scholars would include a comparison of their individual tabulations. What has each one accomplished? Scholar A has eliminated the first six of Bond’s scenarios, leaving 15 possible timelines. Scholar B has eliminated Bond’s eleven briefest scenarios (rows 5-6, 10-11, 14-15, and 17-21), leaving 10 possibilities to consider. Scholar C has eliminated the six options ending in 34 CE (rows 1, 7, 12, 16, 19, and 21), leaving a third unique set with 15 options in view. However, despite this cacophony of disagreement, a surprising result has emerged. Although the lack of consensus keeps all 21 of Bond’s possibilities in the discussion at large, these scholars might happen to note that there are three timelines which no one has eliminated (rows 8, 9, and 13). In the collective aggregate of these individual tabulations, these three options remain viable for Scholars A, B, and C, collectively. In addition, these three timelines had previously avoided statistical extremes in the Baseline Table (rows 21, 22, and 28) and the Bond/Finegan Table (rows 8, 9, and 13), suggesting a healthy mix of probabilities on all three major components. From such a perspective, these three timelines might be considered the most statistically likely interpretations of all data in combination.

In other words, combining these three judgments - eliminate 28 CE, eliminate 34 CE, require at least 4 Passovers - maximizes the available constraints and generates Table 3, below.


Heroman’s Tabulation - Maximizing Constraints


Count
Comparison
Description
29 CE
30 CE
31 CE
32 CE
33 CE
1
Baseline #21, Bond #8
5 P’s, 29-33 (J. Cheney)
P1
P2
P3
P4
PF
2
Baseline #22, Bond #9
4 P’s, 29-32 (Unpromoted)
P1
P2
P3
PF

3
Baseline #28, Bond #13
4 P’s, 30-33 (H. Hoehner)

P1
P2
P3
PF



It so happens that row #1 here is Johnston Cheney’s basic timeline, row #3 is Harold Hoehner’s basic timeline, and #2 is an as yet unpromoted scenario, despite boasting roughly the same parameters as these other more famous chronologies. However, two of these agree on JDebut, two agree on JDuration, and two agree on JDeath, which means that increasing any single constraint at this point is essentially picking a favorite timeline, which makes this table a logical cul-de-sac. Collectively, these three scenarios may be the most likely candidates for the actual timeline of Jesus’ public ministry, but without new information to work from, we cannot say which of them (if any) is historically accurate. In that way, this pursuit remains inconclusive. However, the manageable size of this new set of options provides a worthwhile opportunity to test these basic parameters against a deeper level of historical inquiry.

All of this is as it should be. From a historiographical perspective, accepting any one timeline or any set of possible timelines should provide not be the end of our chronological assessment but a new starting point for fresh historical work. For instance, here is one question worth asking. How might these “Comparative Jesus Timelines” integrate differently with the temporal context of Roman political history? To even begin answering such a question is a highly involved undertaking, so this paper will now conclude by merely suggesting a few intriguing questions for future inquiries.

How do various Jesus Timelines compare against plausible scenarios which answer the following questions. What year did Herodias marry Antipas? How long after that was John’s arrest? Josephus claims Agrippa sought the newlyweds’ hospitality in Galilee until mid 32, but were they married sooner than “the fifteenth year of Tiberius”? How long would John wait before voicing his criticism? How long had John been active before the wedding took place?

Related questions abound. Did Antipas sail to Rome in 29 CE to pay his respets when the Empress Livia died? Her demise weakened the enemies of the Prefect Aelius Sejanus; did that inspire Antipas to visit? Herodias’ patron Antonia Minor replaced Livia as “first woman in Rome”; did that inspire Herodias to visit? Could this be the voyage to Rome during which Herodias and Antipas allegedly seduced one another? Or did that story (if true) belong to some earlier year? Antipas probably sailed to Rome in 27 or 28 to secure the rights to his own mint, but was Herodias with him? Does this trip belong before “the fifteenth year of Tiberius”? Can any of these scenarios be aligned with some Jesus Timelines more easily than with others?

If Antipas wintered in Rome on any one such voyage, as was the general Herodian custom, would that help explain why Antipas hadn’t yet heard about Jesus when John was beheaded?

In the Heroman Table, John has to die in 30, 31, or 32 CE. If Antipas sails back from Rome late one summer, then John can be killed before the following Passover. In which winters was Antipas still at Rome, and therefore unavailable to command John’s execution in Galilee?

Does the fall of Sejanus - and the resulting increase in political risk and instability - make it less likely that Antipas would risk angering the masses who believed in John’s baptizing ministry? Alternatively, would that instability make it more likley that Antipas would refuse to lose face in front of his elite party guests, before whom he promised Salome a beheading? Speaking of Salome, how long was she married to Philip the tetrarch before he died in 33/34? Does this date John’s beheading to 33 at the absolute latest?

How long was John’s imprisonment? If the baptizer was arrested some time after the Passover of GJohn 2, and beheaded some time before the Passover of GJohn 6:4 (= Mark __ = Matt.__ = Luke__), how many years passed in-between those two narrated Passovers? When aligned with comparative timelines, how frequently does John’s beheading occur after (or before) Sejanus’ death?

Can these contextual inquiries be used to further contract the parameters on a given table of Comparative Jesus Timelines? Alternately, could a given set of those judments about JDebut, JDuration, and JDeath be allowed to constrain answers to these contextual inquries? Can the logic work in either direction? Does that provide helpful tension at various points, or does that merely suggest more specific scenarios?

Suppose that 21 biblical scholars each chose to contextualize one of the 21 possible Jesus Timelines on the Bond-Finegan Table of options. Those collective efforts could eventually put together an extensively detailed set of “Comparative Jesus Timelines in Historical Context”. From comparing these hypotheses, new potential constraints might emerge, and I will close this paper with one specific example, which is personally very intriguing but which I do not suggest is determinitive.

It so happens that Johnston Cheney’s timeline aligns uniquely with Roman political history, in the following way. The Gopsel narratives collectively represent a brief period of time after John’s death during which Jesus avoids Galilee but has not yet entered Judea. Since Cheney’s timeline beheads John, in early 31 CE, this wandering phase would seem to end at approximately the same time that Antipas received word of Sejanus’ death, in late 31. With this news, on Cheney’s timeline, the political uncertainty apparently causes Antipas to prefer that Jesus become Judea’s problem. Supposing the historical Jesus somehow became savvy to this new dynamic - perhpas through the household of Chuza? - it naturally would have emboldened Jesus to believe Judea could no longer extradict Jesus back to Antipas. In other words, Cheney’s timeline advances the “hot potato” dynamic (which has been suggested to explain the exchange between Pilate and Antipas in Luke 23) to a full 17 months before Jesus’ death, and it seems plausible to suppose this dynamic would have affected the earliest strategies of any Judeans plotting against Jesus. If Antipas will no longer allow extradition, the Judeans won’t dare to arrest Jesus until they find a way to convince Rome to kill him. Technically, any timeline which executes John in early 31 would allow this same construction, but the “Unpromoted Timeline” puts JDeath in 32, so soon after Sejanus’ fall that the hypothetical “hot potato” dynamic loses explanatory power. By comparison, Hoehner’s timeline puts John’s death six months after Sejanus’ death, rather than six months before.

Without further investigation, this scenario may not prove anything, but it illustrates a compelling distinction in contextualizing various timelines that invites further inquiry, and might uncover new avenues for what could be fruitful debate. The more important point today is that these kinds of comparative alignments are both viable and promising. Any final determinations about Jesus Chronology should not depend merely on critical judgment about a few textual references, no matter how rigorous. Proceeding as historians requires far more than assigning numbers to a handful of Passovers, which means the statistical reframing of “chronological data” should be understood only as a helpful prologue which offers specific frames for composing the various hypotheses to be compared. How were the main players affected by one another and by other events?

These are just some of the questions that Jesus scholars should ask in the future, as they work towards constructing a chronicle of things Jesus did (or did not do) in the years 27 through 36 CE.



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